After detecting and destroying what would turn out to be the first coca crop on Honduran soil, the nation’s authorities are conducting investigations to identify who is behind the planting. Members of the Honduran Armed Forces discovered the coca plants on April 29th in Esquipulas del Norte, a small municipality of about 10,000 residents in the north of the Olancho region, and they are on the trail of those responsible.
“Special units of the Honduran Armed Forces detected the crop field and secured it. They placed it under surveillance, and the established procedures are being followed so that specialists from the Public Prosecutor’s Office can test them and do the relevant scientific analyses,” Honduran Military Justice Lieutenant Colonel Santos Nolasco, the spokesman for the National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA, per its Spanish acronym), told Diálogo.
On the parcel of land, which measures about 21,000 square meters, according to estimates by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, authorities found 12,000 plants at various stages of growth. The shrubs were later identified as belonging to the genus Erythroxylum, whose dozens of species contain the main active chemical in cocaine.
“An investigation is being conducted into the possible involvement of foreigners in this first attempt to produce the drug locally, given the level of experience that was required to develop these plants in soil and climate conditions that are different from those in which it naturally grows,” Lt. Col. Nolasco said. For optimum growth, the Erythroxylum coca plant must develop in a wet environment, and must also be at no less than 1,600 meters above sea level, since it needs low atmospheric pressure – a combination of conditions not easily found outside of the Andes.
On July 7th, a little over a month after the findings, agents from the Anti-Drug Trafficking Directorate and the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Drug Trafficking (DLCN and FESSCO, respectively, per their Spanish acronyms), both under the Office of the Attorney General of Honduras, proceeded to burn the plants. Yuri Mora, a spokesman for the Public Prosecutor’s Office, told Diálogo that experts from DLCN and FESSCO concluded that the coca plants were genetically modified. In other words, they are the product of a genetic alteration, the result of introducing another species’ DNA into the plant to make it more resistant to this new environment.
“We believe that this was a test to see how the plants develop and adapt to that region’s soil and climate. This might be a rehearsal because the agents found the plant in a kind of nursery: small, fertilized plants ready to be transplanted,” he said.
The coca plants were found among a crop of marijuana. During the operation, which was in a hard-to-reach area in the mountains of Olancho, authorities also dismantled an adjacent structure that functioned as a laboratory. Made of wood, the crude facility was equipped with the precursor chemicals needed to process the coca leaf.
“Previously, drug labs where coca paste was processed had been dismantled. The drug-making process began in other places and ended in Honduras but this is the first coca crop that has been found in our country,” Mora stated.
This discovery is meaningful because, in most cases, the Central American nation is used by organized crime groups as a transit point for moving the drug from South America to North America. This recent finding could indicate that the groups are now trying to start producing the drug in Honduras.
In April, just a few days before the operation center in Olancho was discovered, authorities had dismantled another laboratory in La Arada, in the municipality of Santa Bárbara. In May, service members found and destroyed four hectares planted with marijuana in the department of Colón, to the north of Olancho. In its three years of operation, FUSINA has found and destroyed 10 drug labs and has seized more than 15,000 kilograms of cocaine, as well as 697 kilograms of the coca paste used to manufacture the drug.
“Honduras has been closing off spaces to drug traffickers, and criminal gangs are experimenting new ways to commit crimes and get around the authorities. However, one of FUSINA’s strategies is to attack production centers,” Lt. Col. Nolasco said. “We’re stopping them so we don’t allow Honduras to reach the stage of a producer country, for either marijuana or cocaine,” he pointed out.